Thursday, February 09, 2006

No Free Ride

Facing up to Islam in the Netherlands Markha Valenta - openDemocracy

One million of Holland's sixteen million citizens are Muslim, roughly six percent...Of these million, only a handful of women, fifty or so, wear a burka. That is, fewer than a dozen per major city. Probably less.

In light of this, the legislation constitutes little more than a bit of symbolic politics...while ethnically Dutch opponents of the ban oppose it on the grounds of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, many and perhaps most Muslims, whatever their dress, see in the ban yet one more expression of a Dutch aversion to Islam. It is not so much the ban itself troubles them, since so few of them cover their faces or have mothers and wives who do so, but rather the way it would seem to confirm and strengthen the Dutch rejection of Islam and, by extension, of Dutch Muslims.

In this sense, while specifically targeting only a minute proportion of Dutch Muslims, the legislation actually touches the whole of Dutch Muslim citizenry. Women with veils wonder if they will be next; women without are reminded that however integrated they are, however "modern" they may look, the Dutch will not let them forget that they are not quite Dutch; and all Muslims recognize in this legislation the assumption of Islamic inferiority.

But what should they infer: that this ban is symbolic of a program to lock them out, to classify them as "not quite Dutch" regardless of how they dress or behave--or that it is intended to wipe out ethnic distinctiveness so that immigrants from Muslim countries, their children and children's children can be completely Dutch.

That's an empirical question and I don't know enough about how things are in Holland to know what the intention of this ban is or what the result will be. But I believe that governments should impose bans on behaviors and practices that make ethnic identity more salient. There is no free ride: one way of the other some people's interests will be thwarted. If I live in a society where there are Muslim women wearing burkas, where Muslims are, because of this and other practices that are visible in the public square, an identifiable ethnic group, then if I am brown-skinned or for whatever other reason identified as Muslim, I will be identified as an outsider who is "not quite Dutch." If my aim is to assimilate, to be completely Dutch, to be completely identified with the country where I was born, the country whose language I speak, whose culture is my culture and whose history is my history, then the visible persistence of visible, distinct ethnic groups sets back my interests.

There is no free ride and no reason to privilege the minority who want to remain culturally distinct over the majority who want to assimilate.


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